Authored by Brannon Knight
The Longleaf Pine ecosystem once occurred over the vast majority of the Southeastern Coastal Plain, covering approximately 90 million acres. An iconic symbol in this region, it can often “overshadow” what is beneath it. When I walk into a forest it is always exciting to see Longleaf in the overstory, especially big mature trees because such little of this habitat remains. Individual trees are like works of art—stately, venerable, some with bushy flattops or old scars from injuries, that lend them mystique and personality. But what really excites me are the plants beneath my feet.
There are approximately 6,170 native plants found in the Coastal Plain region and approximately 1,750 of these species are limited to this region alone. Remarkably 930 of these species are Longleaf endemics – species intimately associated only with Longleaf Pine plant communities. It is sad and frustrating that today only 3-4% of the ecosystem remains natural and functioning as it should. In reality, intact native understory communities are less than this because of fire suppression among many other reasons. One way I like to grasp the floristic diversity in the understory is to compare it to vertebrate species that are associated with Longleaf Pine. There are approximately 215 species that are considered “characteristic of Longleaf Pine habitat” and only 38 of these species are habitat specialists.
I always like to say there are really two pillars in restoration; fire and groundcover restoration. The only way we can restore the understory is to basically plant it back the best we can. The approach we take is to harvest seed from a site that is analogous to what the natural plant community should be on the site we want to restore. We use various methods to harvest seed, but mainly a mechanical means using a Woodward flail-vac. It basically strips the seed and dispenses in a hopper. We then have to send the seed off for viability testing. If the seed is good we will plant it.
Two years ago we began working on a portion of the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve that we are calling a “donor site”. It was at one time in cultivation and used as a dove hunting field and was covered in Bermudagrass. Bermudagrass is an invasive species that can be really tough to eradicate. The only means of removal is to intensively spray herbicide. Today, we have reclaimed the ground and are now beginning to replant native groundcover back on this site. Once the plants are thriving and free of invasives, we will collect seed from this site and use it to restore other areas on the preserve, but also on private and partner cooperator lands. This particular pillar, ground cover, is often the most challenging associated with restoration, but in my opinion, it is most rewarding putting back what is so often forgotten about.